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Maiden, Mother and Queen: Mary in the Anglican Tradition

February 4, 2016

MMAQRoger Greenacre was a scholarly Anglican priest and Benedictine oblate who contributed to Anglican–RC relations was earned him a Lambeth Doctorate.

Although an anglo-catholic, he was less concerned about ceremonial and more concerned about teaching the faith. Like me, he eschewed Italianate cottas in favour of ‘full English’ surplices.

This book is a series of essays in his honour and in the greater honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary from an Anglican perspective.

Roger described the Church as ‘a womb-community’. This is the context in which we, as artisans, co-operate in the work of redemption, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is a joyful undertaking by priest and people alike, in ‘bearing’, ‘making present’, ‘bringing forth’, and ‘preaching’. (Inspired by Mary’s example of self-offering.)

We are given several of his sermons about our lady. Some of these are repetitive. They’re scripted in long-hand as he eschewed word processing. In one, he talks about the pulpit giving way to the altar in Church of England architecture and likes John the Baptist to the pulpit – word – and Mary to the altar – bearing the real presence. (For Mark Frank ‘the glorious Virgin’s lap’ is ‘the shrine and altar. . . where the Saviour of the world is laid to be adored and worshipped’)

I don’t understand why the idea of Mary as mediatrix is such a threat. I thought it was scriptural e.g. where Paul talks of making up the sufferings of Christ.

Typically Anglican, unfortunately, there is no notion of Our Lady of the poor, which is more common in Roman Catholic devotion.


To learn is also to accept that we are not in possession of all the truth. So we have to multiply encounters with persons of other beliefs and philosophies and opinions in order to see what we can do together to better the society in which we live. Roger met many different people: intellectuals, political leaders, artists, remembering always he was first a priest.

I remember old friend of mine who was going to die from cancer and some hours before passing away asked his daughter, ‘How shall I know when I am dead?’ And she answered, ‘Darling, it is when you know and feel you are completely better.’

(Retirement mass) At the party afterwards, this comment was overheard: `What a wonderful idea to have your memorial service before you die. That way you can really enjoy it.’

Today our consolation is to know that, as Jesus said: In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have gone and prepared a place for you? So that where I am going, you also may.

Roger has only changed address. He is now in a new dwelling where the Father was waiting for him. His new home is not made by human hands but it is an everlasting home, which is a part of the greatest home, our Father’s house, which can be the dwelling of so many people, says Jesus in the Gospel we have heard.

The place where Roger is, he has built gradually during his lifetime, by his gifts, his personal qualities and even his limit­ations. As a matter of fact, death is not only the end of the human adventure, it is also the beginning of our heavenly adventure.

St Augustine’s words: We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise; in the end that is no end.

Most vividly I remember the Pax — rather a daring feature in those days. You announced to the congregation, ‘Let us now offer one another the kiss of peace, either with Gallic exuberance or English reticence’, and the regulars in that most friendly of congregations each turned to their neighbour and kissed him or her warmly on both cheeks.

This contrast between the meekness and humility of the Poor Virgin of Nazareth and the splendid vision of the Woman of the Apocalypse crowned with twelve stars has perhaps nowhere been better portrayed than by the Anglican Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix in a sermon that he preached at Beaconsfield in 1941: Here she is, the Queen of all the Cinderellas in history: the humble peasant girl; the carpenter’s wife, brought to bed in a stable; the refugee in Egypt; the mother of whom ill-natured neighbours said she was no better than she ought to be (she was not spared that taunt); the poor widow, who watched her Son die in agony because the great ones of the world feared this young man and put him out of the way; the silent humble old woman of the people, whose life was over for all that mattered, praying in obscurity for twelve or twenty years after the Ascension; and then — the Queen of heaven.’

A procession was winding its way one bank holiday Monday through the streets of the Norfolk village of Walsingham, a place of pilgrimage to the Blessed Virgin Mary since the elev­enth century, whose shrine there was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII and restored in the twentieth century, and is now frequented by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Eastern Ortho­dox. A little group of demonstrators from a number of extreme protestant groups inspired by Ian Paisley were brandishing placards and screaming abuse. One of them with an extremely powerful voice and a strong Ulster accent was screaming out, `She can’t hear you; she’s dead.’ Now that in fact contradicts two central doctrines of the Christian faith, clearly affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed — the communion of saints and the resur­rection of the body.

Luther quite rightly and properly reacted against this, but in his Commentary on the Magnificat, in which he exalted precisely her lowliness and her total dependence on God (`she does not want you to come to her, but through her to God’), he concluded, ‘We pray God to give us a right understanding of this Magnificat … through the intercession and for the sake of his dear Mother Mary.’ Later Protestant Reformers and later generations of Protestants went beyond this position of Martin Luther, denying the legiti­macy of asking for the prayers of saints, doubting whether the saints do pray for us, regarding any honour paid to the saints as dangerous infringement of worship due to Christ alone.

There was much in this mediaeval cultus of lasting beauty and value, but an overcharged theology and an overworked and unbalanced liturgical programme, where the original pattern came, as Louis Bouyer put it, ‘to be immersed in a formless ocean of inorganic prayer’, led inevitably to the vigorous protest of the Reformation. In one sense that protest was necessary, for what was at risk was the centrality of Christ and his unique role as Mediator and Redeemer. At the same time the protest led to a different kind of imbalance and to the ruthless destruction of much that was good and true and beautiful. For a while it seemed as if the Christian world would be for ever divided between those who gave exaggerated honour to Mary and those who ignored her. It needed the self-critical spirit of reform and renewal of Pope John XXIII (`The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son’) and of the Second Vatican Council (`The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary’)’ to make possible a new ecumen­ical exploration and convergence.

To understand what happened in the twelfth century it is impor­tant to realize that the change was not primarily Mariological at all; it was a more general revolution affecting the whole tem­per of Christian devotion. A good introduction to it can be found in G. L. Prestige’s 194o Bampton Lectures Fathers and Heretics, in the chapter that is described as an epilogue: ‘Eros: or, Devotion to the Sacred Humanity’. He explains how in the pre-mediaeval period the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord was worshipped without being made the object of any special­ized devotion: ‘The devotion of the ancient Church was neither mainly subjective nor mainly individualistic. Its standard pat­tern of prayer was the liturgy, and the prayers of the liturgy are addressed not to God the Son, but through Christ to the Father.’ Hymns and prayers addressed to Christ came into the liturgy from the fourth century onwards under Syrian influence, but they are biblical and liturgical in tone and concentrate more on Christ the Victor than on the Suffering Christ. The precur­sor of the new movement was St Anselm, successively Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1109 and who, according to Sir Richard Southern, ‘created a new kind of poetry — the poetry of intimate, personal devotion’. The two greatest figures in its development were St Bernard of Clair­vaux (who died in 1153) and St Francis of Assisi (who died in Izz6). The new spirituality was intensely personal, passionate and subjective and it fastened in a new way on the humanity of Jesus — both in the crib and on the cross. Its central focus was the human suffering of Jesus on the cross (and it is instructive in this context to study the history of the portrayal of the cru­cifixion in the visual arts); it found expression in devotion to the Name of Jesus, to his Heart and to his Five Wounds.

Bishop William Forbes of Edinburgh, who died in 1634, condemned ‘invocation’ of the saints (by which he meant praying to them as if they were deities) but he called for tolerance of ‘the very ancient custom received in the universal Church’ of what he called ‘advocation’ (asking the saints to pray to God for us). In this he was a lone voice, however.

Herbert Thorndike discussed the possibility without coming to a conclusion.

Even Newman, apparently, in the twilight of his Anglican years, felt that addressing the saints to request their prayers was a step too far. The one change to the Roman Breviary on which he insisted when his little community recited it at Littlemore was to substitute ‘Oret pro nobis’ (may he or she pray for us) for ‘Ora pro nobis’.

It was John Keble, that radical conservative steeped (as Newman was not) in the high Anglican tradition, who first pushed the boundaries.

The English Hymnal, published in 1906 contained Ken’s ‘Her Virgin eyes’, Heber’s ‘Virgin born’, and Keble’s ‘Ave Maria! blessed Maid!’, together with four translations of Latin office hymns of Our Lady, and ‘Ye who own the faith of Jesus’ by the Principal of Pusey House, Stuckey Coles. Of these eight hymns, only Heber’s and one of the office hymns (‘The God whom earth and sea and sky’) had previously appeared in Hymns Ancient and Modern. (That hymn book, itself originally a catholic publication, had also included Sir Henry Baker’s ‘Shall we not love thee, Mother dear’ – which, admittedly, is not among Anglo-Catholicism’s greatest contributions to the canon of hymnody, its first verse at least struggling to rise above the level of Victorian sentimentality).

Two of the office hymns in the English Hymnal were addressed to Our Lady. One of them, ‘Hail, O Star that pointest’, translated by Athelstan Riley, asked for her supplication and aid; and the refrain of ‘Ye who own the faith of Jesus’ is, of course, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’. These and some other hymns prompted a storm of protest from a number of bishops, including Archbishop Davidson. The committee cleverly appeased them by publishing an abridged edition omitting some hymns and verses and altering others. The abridged edition sank without trace and the English Hymnal was very widely used.

Through it, hymns to Our Lady became a standard part of the Anglican tradition. In 1986 the New English Hymnal added to the repertoire ‘For Mary, Mother of the Lord’ and ‘Sing we of the blessed Mother’.

Whenever Mark Frank is preaching at a Eucharist, as on this occasion, he always works up to a sacramental conclusion; this is how he does it on Christmas Day:

What though there be no room for them in the inn? I hope there is in our houses for him. It is Christmas time, and let us keep open house for him; let his rags be our Christmas raiment, his manger our Christmas cheer, his stable our Christmas great chamber, hall, dining-room. We must clothe with him, and feed with him, and lodge with him at this feast. He is now ready by and by to give Himself to eat; you may see him wrapped ready in the swaddling clothes of his blessed sacrament; you may behold him laid upon the altar as in his manger. Do but make room for him, and we will bring him forth, and you shall look upon him, and handle him, and feed upon him: bring we only the rags of a rent and torn and broken and contrite heart, the white linen cloths of pure intentions and honest affections to swathe him in, wrap him up fast, and lay him close to our souls and bosoms. It is a day of mysteries: it is a mysterious business we are about; Christ wrapped up, Christ in the sacrament, Christ in a mystery; let us be content to let it go so, believe, admire and adore it.

Light up now your candles at this evening service, for the glory of your morning sacrifice: it is Candlemas. Become we all burning and shining lights, to do honour to this day, and the blessed armful of it. Let your souls shine bright with grace, your hands with good works; … Walk we ‘as children of the light,’ as so many walking lights; and offer we our­selves up like so many holy candles to the Father of Light.”

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